For some horrible reason lost to history and wrapped in political voodoo, the State Fair of Texas, one of the single most beloved icons of Texas culture, operates under the iron-fisted domination of one of the single most despised ownerships in the state, by which I mean State Fair of Texas Inc., an entity that operates with all of the charm, transparency and grace of the Ku Klux Klan.
Just for grins, click on the red words above. Your eyes will be carried to a web page offering you yet another link that says, “Learn more about the State Fair of Texas, Inc.” If you were to click on that link, you would be carried to another page that says, “Not Found, Apologies, but the page you requested could not be found. Perhaps searching will help.”
No. I don’t think it will. I don’t think you could get a list of their board of directors out of them with anything short of a pistol and a ski mask. But the much more urgent point is this: The State Fair of Texas itself must not and should not be made to suffer the public horse-whipping that its ownership body so richly deserves.
The State Fair of Texas has always been one of the nation’s most successful expositions of its kind, and even more important than that is the role it plays right here in the Lone Star State. Brilliantly run, clean, safe, always surprising, the state fair is a magical touch point where all those country kids in hats and boots and tight-fitting western shirts get to gawp and ogle and be gawped at and ogled by all those city kids who’ve never been closer to a Hereford heifer than a booth at McDonald’s.
The state fair is where the 19th century country carnie birthdays of Texas reach right up through the shroud of time and give a big old gap-toothed, hand-pumping howdy-do to the Texas of today. Think how marvelous it is that a form of live entertainment straight out of the Middle Ages can still dance us down the midway aisle and makes us laugh out loud in this age of digital ennui.
There’s a reason why I’m getting all weepy in advance of myself here. I’ll get to it in a second. But first let me say something about why the fair is still so wonderful.
This fair is put on by people who either go all the way back to popcorn wagons and fire-eaters themselves, before the birth of Disneyland and animatronics, or their parents do. I have covered this fair for decades and gotten to know a lot of them. This last weekend I attended a memorial service for one of them whom I knew only a little, J.R. (“Bob”) Minick, who designed many of the grand entrance way arches at the fair.
In a 42-year career as a park and amusement designer, Minick worked all over this country, Europe and the Middle East, but as a kid he was one of the only people ever to live on the grounds of the then brand-new Disneyland park in Anaheim, Calif., where he worked for his aunt and uncle, the keepers of the Circle D Ranch. Fairs and carnivals and parks became his entire life. In his living room window, a beautiful antique carousel horse looking out over the lawns of Forest Hills is his spiritual avatar.
I eavesdropped on the guests trading anecdotes and war stories at the come-and-go “service,” which was really a wake. These are fair people. OK, they’re carnies. I’ve never heard them balk at that term. Many of them are well educated, well traveled and sophisticated, but I always get the feeling they’re proud of that word, carnie. They like being part of something so retro, so utterly non-digital, so deeply echoed in the past.
Think of it. We tend to construe history as something to read in books or view in museums, but every time we go to the fair we step back into it, physically and wholly. We walk those same dusty lanes, hear the same sounds and throw the same chipped red wooden ball at that same green bottle that has eluded more malevolent hurls than ought to be physically possible unless the bottle is nailed to the ground or something. We laugh the same laugh, shrug the same shrug and go console ourselves with the same cold beer. Ah, well, I’m not sure about the beer. But you get the idea.
So why the weepies? Tonight Mark Lamster, architecture critic of The Dallas Morning News, is hosting some kind of community gathering at the Hall of State at Fair Park, part of something called the Dallas Festival of Ideas, not normally my cup of tea, but I’m going to attend anyway because I’m so worried about what’s going to get said.
The pitch for it says it will be about the question, “How can Dallas transform Fair Park, a magnificent but underperforming amenity, into a year-round destination and economic engine for its South Dallas environs?”
Oh, man when I read that I just hear about 35 different alarm bells going off. First of all, as I said already, just about everybody who has anything to do with the governing body of the state fair comes away stunned by what jerks they are. There is also a deep-running historical animus against the people who run the fair among the fair’s neighbors in South Dallas over ugly racism in the past, both in the way the fair itself was operated and in the fair board’s association with the use of eminent domain and other predatory real estate practices to dispossess the fair’s black neighbors.
All of that has produced a serious sentiment of political opposition to the fair — the kind of thing I ought to be applauding, and I am, but only where it applies to the mossbacks and bluenoses who control the board, not where it laps over into hostility toward the fair itself.
Some of the bright new ideas for running the fair in the future have been making the rounds semi-publically and in back channels over the past year, and I’ve been watching them with growing horror. One set of proposals, which I would call the “Screw the Fair” plan, calls for shoving the fair onto a back lot of Fair Park and letting it starve and languish there until it dies.
But even the ideas that are supposed to be supportive of the fair seem to be founded on the idea that somebody at City Hall needs to tell the state fair how to run a state fair. OMG. Please allow me to utter three words to you. White. Water. Feature.
Now, wait. I do recognize that we have seen examples of important cultural institutions split away from City Hall and handed over to private hands to good effect. The Dallas Zoo is already a good example. We’ll see what happens to the Farmers Market.
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But the question is which private hands. This festival thing tonight, for example, is being sponsored by some of the same people who were early boosters of the White. Water. Feature. It, as you know, is a gigantic heap of concrete currently blocking navigation of the Trinity River – living proof that meddlesome socialites don’t know how to create entertainment venues any better than meddlesome bureaucrats.
Some things really have to be left to the particular people and maybe even peculiar tribes of people who know how to do them. Give you an example: the ballet. Close your eyes, try to imagine the entire Dallas City Council clambering up onto the stage and saying, “OK, all you skinny little dance people, we got some of our own good ideas for steps you could try.”
Right? Get it? It’s every bit as absurd a picture for the fair as it would be for the ballet. True, I might pay to go see that ballet, but not twice and not for very nice reasons.
So I’ll be there in the peanut gallery tonight saying my little prayer. Give the board of directors hell. But please, please, don’t go and wreck the fair itself.